Last week I devoted a mythcomics essay to a THOR arc in order to purge the bad memory of THOR: RAGNAROK. In contrast, the JUSTICE LEAGUE film, released the week after the THOR flick, provided a much stronger translation of a comic-book concept, in this case of DC's most venerable team-feature. So this week's essay is more in the nature of celebration than of catharsis.
The JUSTICE LEAGUE comics title of the 1960s has never received a lot of respect even among Silver Age comics-fandom, and one reason may be that the early comic, for several years written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Mike Sekowsky, is perceived as being too "old school." Most team-features in both the Golden and the Silver Ages followed what I'll call a "plot-based model," in which "character moments" are kept to a minimum, as the author concentrates on the events of the plot, usually showing how the members of the team work to overcome some common enemy. The plot-model seems like an easy row to hoe, as indicated by countless spoofs of the model, but DC Comics pursued it almost exclusively, even when Marvel Comics in the 1960s advanced a "character-based model" that over time become the dominant paradigm.
Both models have their weaknesses. The character-model lends itself to bathetic soap-opera, which in modern comics has further degenerated into allegedly arty bathos. The plot-model often depended not on symbolically rigorous concepts but on weak contrivances. This vacuity dominates most of the Silver Age team-books-- BLACKHAWK, CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN, SEA DEVILS, and RIP HUNTER TIME MASTER Fox's JUSTICE LEAGUE was one of the plot-modeled team-features of the Silver Age to overcome the model's limitations, for Fox was largely responsible for making the League's adventures all about the heroes' experience of "the sense of wonder." Only a few of the Fox-Sekowsky adventures are symbolically dense enough to qualify as mythcomics, as I've shown with "Secret of the Sinister Sorcerers" and "The Justice League's Impossible Adventure." But aside from a few clunking null-myths, such as "The Plague That Struck the Justice League," most of the Fox oeuvre offers at least strongly conceived "near myths." In fact, the current JUSTICE LEAGUE movie approaches its team-building story in much the same way that Fox launched the original series.
Prior to Grant Morrison's run on the JUSTICE LEAGUE title, few raconteurs on the book showed Fox's penchant for the sense of wonder. There were some uneasy attempts to shift the feature in the direction of the character-model-- "Justice League Detroit," anyone? But Morrison, aided by the pencil-work of Howard Porter, is the first author to exploit the original plot-model for all that it was worth, as well as providing enough "character-moments" to make his project palatable to Marvel-ized tastes.
Seventeen years before the JUSTICE LEAGUE movie, Grant Morrison also sought to devise a bridge between the wonder-scape of Fox's JLA and that of Jack Kirby's slightly later "Fourth World." Morrison was far from the first raconteur to provide a crossover between the superheroes and the "science fiction quasi-deities" of Kirby's universe, but he seems to be the first who understood how to get the best out of both worlds. Kirby's Fourth World cosmos is very different in tone than the Fox-scape, but the two are fundamentally both indebted to the "plot-model," and Morrison alone found a way to meld the two aesthetics. The current film only achieves this synthesis once or twice, but then, the filmmakers were primarily concerned with introducing the heroes, and the film's use of Fourth World characters and concepts is much more scattershot.
Morrison crossed over Kirby's "New Gods' and the JLA in his arc "Rock of Ages," but this, while a great deal of fun, wasn't nearly as mythically resonant as the author's final arc in his tenure, "World War III." Earlier issues also introduced the League to the champions of "Wonder-World," which in essence was a Mount Olympus for superheroes who had evolved to the level of gods. However, the gist of the story was to pit the League and some of Kirby's New Gods-- Orion, Metron, Mister Miracle and Big Barda-- against a seemingly unstoppable threat, the Wonder-World champions were primarily created to be the victims of the new menace.
The menace is Maggedon, the Anti-Sun, a non-sentient weapon created by "the Old Gods" who, in Kirby's cosmology, preceded the newer super-deities. Mageddon escapes its exile at the end of space-time and destroys the Wonder-World heroes by emitting radiations that fill the heroes with rage and despair, so that they murder one another. That done, the super-weapon then makes a beeline for Earth. and as it approaches, the world undergoes the first symptoms of Maggedon's influence. Nations begin gearing up for a world war, and even the Justice League's regular villains become pawns of the extraterrestrial invader. Said villains include master planner Lex Luthor, who helmed an analogous bad guy-group in "Rock of Ages," and two old Fox-fiends, the Queen Bee and a substantially revamped Shaggy Man. For good measure, Morrison adds a villain he created in earlier issues of this tenure: Prometheus, a computer-nerd gone berserk.
Yet, although this is clearly a plot-heavy continuity, forcing the Leaguers and their allies to prevent a war opening up on multiple fronts, Morrison doesn't neglect the "character moments." The evildoer Prometheus plays the part of Faust to the League's long-crippled intelligence gatherer, Barbara "Oracle" Gordon, offering her the chance to walk again if she betrays the good guys. The then-current Green Lantern, Kyle Rayner, experiences a crisis of self-confidence, and the angel Zauriel-- allegedly Morrison's substitute for an unavailable Hawkman-- must remonstrate with his fellow angels to coax them to come to mankind's aid. Morrison gets a lot of humorous mileage out of the sometimes manic Plastic Man, but even characters who aren't overly funny get good lines. These include Kyle Rayner telling Luthor that he's being "outsmarted by a giant eyeball," and even the brutal Shaggy Man referring to Orion as "Mr. 'Was-God-an-Astronaut.'" Morrison crafts strong moments for all of the heroes, and even strives, in his use of the New Gods, to pepper their dialogue with Kirby-ish touches, like calling Maggedon's interior "techno-active."
At the same time Morrison knows that the "friendly enemies" relationship of DC's most iconic characters, Superman and Batman, lies at the core of the modern JLA. The climax of WAR involves Superman trying to defeat Mageddon directly, with the result that the super-machine enslaves him. There's more than the suggestion of Biblical imagery here, in that Metron poetically describes Maggedon as "dragging its broken chains across the stars"-- and during Superman's captivity, he carries much of the resonance of Samson chained in the Temple of Dagon. One panel even makes Superman's eyes look overshadowed, as if he might be as blind as Samson, though this may have been no more than a fortuitous accident.
Maggedon enslaves Superman by filling him with a despair that plays on the hero's sense of "survivor guilt." Batman, speaking to the hero through a telepathic link, essentially "out-guilts" the machine, causing the Man of Steel to rally and to defeat the Anti-Sun with his own solar-based powers: the "positive sun" besting the "negative sun."
I should note in closing that though Morrison pays full respect to Kirby's Fourth World, the later author places a lot more emphasis on the idea of humankind's evolutionary destiny, which, in essence, argues that everyone can be a superhero. The author's meditations on metaphysical evolution are arguably better worked out in the later "Being Bizarro" sequence from ALL-STAR SUPERMAN. Nevertheless, I can find no substantive flaws in Morrison's homage to the wonder-working proclivities of the Silver Age JUSTICE LEAGUE, which, like all good homages, is as much about what the modern author likes as the thing being homaged.